Plenty of room at the top

Several of the UK’s most prestigious network agencies are currently leaderless, and others have been forced to look outside advertising for senior executives. Is this because the best people are starting their own shops, or is there a genuine dearth of talent? By David Benady

Adland is suffering from a dearth of high-quality leaders, leaving a void at the top of a number of UK agencies owned by global networks.

Shops including Euro RSCG London, HHCL United and TBWA/London are all considering how best to – or even whether to – replace bosses who have left over the past year. Some are worried they risk being left rudderless unless they can appoint suitable chiefs to manage clients, secure places on pitch-lists, run daily operations and position the businesses against increasingly fierce competition from start-ups.

It emerged last week that Simon Bolton, chief executive of WPP-owned JWT London, is about to stand down. This follows the agency’s loss of the Axa and Persil accounts and much of the Samsung business. Some say Bolton’s apparently forced exit is harsh treatment, as these losses were not entirely down to him. What is more, he helped to get the agency on the prized pitch-lists for BA and Sainsbury’s, although it did not win either piece of business. His departure, nearly five years after he was brought in from FCB San Francisco, follows reports that he fell out with creative director Nick Bell, who he hired from Leo Burnett. It is unclear who will replace Bolton – something that may indicate a lack of a succession strategy. It has been suggested the job will go to an insider.

The walking heads

Meanwhile, Euro RSCG Worldwide is anxious to find a boss to replace UK chairman Ben Langdon, who left in September after just eight months. HHCL United chief executive Nick Howarth is about to leave to join Clemmow Hornby Inge (CHI), and the agency says he will not be replaced, leaving managing director Sid McGrath in charge.

TBWA/London lost chief executive Andrew McGuinness in the spring, when he left with chairman Trevor Beattie to set up Beattie McGuinness Bungay. TBWA managing director Matt Shepherd-Smith, until recently client services director, has taken day-to-day control of the agency. European president Paul Bainsfair may eventually either promote him to chief executive or bring in another senior manager to fill the role. But in the meantime, the agency will cope without a figurehead.

The failures to replace McGuinness, Howarth and Langdon may be down to a lack of suitable candidates, though opinion is divided as to the causes of this supposed famine. Some say there is a lack of talent coming through following the continual downsizing of bloated agency structures since the 1980s. The leaner agencies of recent times have been criticised for failing to nurture potential new bosses.

Others attribute the shortage to booming demand, resulting from London’s frenetic start-up culture. Jonathan Mildenhall, former managing director of TBWA and now strategy director at Mother, says: “Management is usually driven by new business wins, talent and recruitment. If you look at the big success stories, they are all coming from the independents. The hot management teams are in the indies; when people’s names are above the door, you can’t pull them out of the agency. The big networks are struggling.”

Don’t want to join the gang

DDB chief executive Paul Hammersley cites Helen Calcraft, managing director of Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy; and Mark Lund, foundPartners, as potentially ideal London chiefs for network agencies. Instead, they have been lured into agency start-ups. “That is a big loss. The London market is interesting in that it is one of the few places where there has been a start-up culture in the past five years, except perhaps for Latin America and Toronto,” says Hammersley. This trend, he adds, is drawing leaders away from established agencies.

After all, why slave away for a network for a mere &£250,000 to &£400,000 a year, when you can plan to make millions from selling an agency you have set up? In days gone by, the big networks would have bought start-ups and put the talented managers in charge of their merged London agencies. But WPP Group, Publicis Groupe and Omnicom are now more cautious about paying top dollar for start-ups. And with Interpublic Group in crisis, an aggressive competitor has been taken out of the market.

Hammersley has been mooted as a candidate for the top job at Euro RSCG London, but he says: “I can’t imagine a world in which I would leave here to go there.”

Left with the dregs?

Some have suggested the general quality of advertising executives is decreasing, as ambitious youngsters are attracted by even higher salaries in management consultancy and the City. The graduate intake at Ogilvy & Mather in 1990 included just six people, three of whom – Johnny Hornby (CHI), James Murphy (Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R) and Howarth – have gone on to run agencies. Agencies used to take on graduates by the dozen, but some complain that the industry has stopped hiring them in the same numbers over the past ten to 15 years. Many have dropped out of the industry and there is a small pool from which to hire leadership talent.

DFGW joint managing director Tom Vick, who is likely to join Lowe, which is buying the agency, says: “Agencies may be best off looking slightly further afield, rather than recruiting a chief executive from another ad agency. There may well be trading across disciplines. Perhaps we should not be as blinkered as in the past.”

This could mean recruiting ad agency bosses from direct marketing and media agencies, or promotional marketing companies, or even hiring former clients such as marketing directors. Vick points to FCB London’s hiring of Nigel Jones, chief executive of direct marketing agency Claydon Heeley Jones Mason, as chief executive. Jones has agency experience, having worked at what is now DDB London. He replaces chairman and chief executive John Banks, who left in the summer.

Most observers agree that agencies can function for many months without a chief executive in place. But in the long term, having an inspirational leader is vital to presenting a profile to the outside world and managing creative and strategic talent within the agency. There are not many people with the ability and desire to take such a job, which could lead to a crisis for established networks in the future.

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